Until you met me, drinks in New York city
Ooh, you looked so pretty
Think I fell in love before I even knew your birthday
Kissed you on our first date
Somehow, I knew someday
This would hurt 'cause I could never let you go
Sana is in love.
Well, that’s nothing new. Sana is always in love. She’s in love with the birds that sing a song every single time she emerges from her room at five in the morning, despite not having gotten a wink of sleep. She’s in love with the way Momo’s face lights up when she comes back to their room with celebratory food, even though they both failed major exams that day. She’s in love even with the most inconvenient of things — like that one time Nayeon spilled coffee all over her English notes or how Jihyo berates her for not cleaning up after herself when they finish eating dinner at the dorms.
Sana is in love.
But this time, it’s with the tall, quiet girl who always falls asleep in the library every Wednesday afternoon.
“Look at her,” Sana whines to Momo, “She’s so adorable.”
Momo barely looks up from her notes or from what Sana assumes to be her notes. Momo hardly ever studies. Maybe she’s just doodling all over the pages, the way she always does during her classes. “And you’re staring again,” she says, “like a total creep, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“I’m not a creep,” Sana grumbles under her breath, affronted by the suggestion. The two of them are in the library, as they always are every Wednesday afternoon. Back then, it was simply a way to meet up and gossip over their subjects or some high school friends they’re still in touch with. But ever since Sana laid eyes on that girl — the tall one whose face is so perfectly crafted into a neutral state that Sana wonders what it would be like if she saw her smile — the library meet-ups turned into spying sessions.
The pretty girl usually sits alone a few tables away from their designated areas. She never brings anything else except for her laptop. Sana has watched her so many times that her routine is engraved in her mind. The girl always arrives first, having propped open her laptop to start studying for exams or maybe to do some light reading. Then after a few minutes of staring at the screen, the girl’s eyes always flutter close and she ends up falling asleep while seated, her posture only slouching slightly as she succumbs to sleep. Sana loves watching her doze off (and no, Momo, it’s not creepy — it’s cute) because the girl’s beauty shines through.
If the girl is already so beautiful without doing anything, how much more if she’s smiling? Or laughing? She looks like she has a pretty laugh. Sana has always liked pretty people.
“Maybe you should be like a normal person,” Momo tells her, sneaking a donut from her bag and taking a bite, “and try to talk to her. Ask for her name, maybe even a date later on. Is that so hard?” The last words are muffled by the food in her mouth.
It’s not. Sana has always been so friendly with people but for some reason, she finds herself shying away from the prospect of even talking to the object of her affections. Maybe it’s because of that piercing stare or the brooding aura or the fact that Sana doesn’t really know what the girl might even say to her. The entire pretty girl image would be absolutely ruined if she ends up being a bitch in the end.
Besides, it’s fun to watch from afar. Pretty people are always prettier up close. But Sana wants to wait this one out, observe a bit more. Maybe she wants to capture the unguarded beauty first before it springs into something more.
“Soon,” is all that she tells Momo. Then she brings her attention back to her notes, letting out a deep sigh at the thought of diving back into the world of psychology all over again. But, she thinks to herself, sneaking another glance at the pretty girl starting to doze off in her seat, at least the view is nice.
Sana is in love with college.
Well, as much as anybody can be in love with college, considering the amount of workload that she has to juggle on a daily basis. Two upcoming exams, an essay that’s already due tonight, some extracurricular activities that she has to attend, Momo telling her to buy some food on the way back home and even a dog that she has to walk on the days her roommate is too busy to do so. While Sana loves keeping busy, sometimes the toll on her physical and mental health can be draining. And sometimes, all she wants is to slink into her bed, curl up with her blankets and fall asleep to the sound of Momo making a cup of coffee and grumbling under her breath about how it’s too bitter.
“So you got a job as a professional cuddler,” Jihyo deadbeats, staring at Sana’s profile in a not so inconspicuous site that highlights the benefits of cuddling with someone before falling asleep. After the benefits are a couple of profiles of said professional cuddlers. Sana’s own name and picture have already been added to the site, a friendly face among many others.
Sana nods happily. “Yes! My friend Eunha suggested it to me like a part-time job,” she says. The two of them are in Jihyo’s room — the one she shares with Mina, another one of Sana’s friends who is apparently studying at the library tonight. Jihyo hasn’t stopped staring at her laptop screen.
“A part-time job,” Jihyo repeats.
“I heard it pays well.”
If looks could kill, Jihyo’s gaze would’ve set Sana on fire. “And she made it pretty clear that this part-time job isn’t related to prostitution in no way whatsoever?” she asks, perusing through the site with furrowed eyebrows.
Sana slaps Jihyo on the arm, eliciting a startled yelp. “How could you even suggest that?”
“Well! The first thing that comes to mind when I hear the words professional cuddler lies between those lines,” Jihyo says in defense, reaching up to rub the spot Sana had slapped, “I just want you to be careful, that’s all.”
“You know I’m always careful, Jihyo-yah.”
Jihyo’s expression turns incredulous. “Sana-yah, you are honest-to-God one of the clumsiest people I’ve ever known. The only person clumsier than you is Momo and that’s only by a fraction of an inch.”
Feigning like she’s been struck in the heart, Sana staggers back from Jihyo’s table and out of the room. “You wound me,” she says in a despairing voice and the younger girl just shakes her head in disbelief, looking like she’s seconds away from scolding Sana. In the end, she decides not to, apparently thinking it’s too much trouble.
Sana closes the door with a chirpy “bye I’ll see you for lunch tomorrow!” and leaves the floor with a skip to her step, making sure to greet people she recognizes (and doesn’t) along the way.
Ah, Sana loves college.
Being a professional cuddler has its perks.
She didn’t really undergo a difficult screening process. As long as they were willing to cuddle with a few random strangers on some nights they were available. Maybe that was a red flag Sana should’ve considered more seriously. But she’s allowed to pick her clients, reads their short essays about why they’d like to try professional cuddling, and sets her profile to make sure only female college students within the vicinity can avail of her services. The pay isn’t too bad. So far, all the girls she’s met who needed a pair of arms to fall asleep complained of insomnia or of homesickness or even just blatant curiosity at how it would feel to be with someone at night. Sometimes, they’d chat about their majors or their family background, or even anything that pops to mind. Most often than not, it’s the clients who fall asleep first. Then Sana follows suit.
Reasonably, it’s a good job.
Nayeon is baffled by it. “So you just randomly hug strangers until they fall asleep?”
Sana sighs, putting down the fruit smoothie she was about to drink. “If you say it like that, it sounds weird,” she grumbles under her breath. The cafe they’re in is small and quiet with a few college students seated around them, their noses buried in books or inches away from a laptop screen. Sana recognizes Hwang Hyunjin and raises a hand to give him a quick wave.
Nayeon picks up a cookie and bites into it. “Because it is weird,” she mumbles, “Like I didn’t know that was a thing.”
“It’s very helpful,” Sana says helpfully.
“But what if they’re creeps?”
“Most of my clients aren’t.”
Nayeon makes a face. “I still wouldn’t take the chance, you know. It seems risky. But I’m glad you seem to be enjoying it. Just be careful, okay?” She picks up another cookie, slowly bites into it, and starts chewing thoughtfully. Then her gaze slides from Sana, fixating on something behind her shoulder. She immediately perks up. “Well, look who the cat just dragged in.”
Sana follows her eyes. To her pleasant surprise, she recognizes her crush almost at once, being dragged in by a tall, blonde chick with round glasses perched on top of her nose. The two of them point at random desserts in the display, apparently arguing over what to buy. Well, the blonde argues loudly while the tall girl that Sana’s been in love with for the past few months simply stares. And for some reason, that stare is enough for the blonde chick to concede, letting out a huge sigh and pulling out her wallet. “You’re lucky you’re so cute, Tzuyu-yah,” she grumbles.
Sana is so wrapped up in love she even falls in love with the way her heart drops. Just like the movies. Oh. Maybe this is the tall girl’s girlfriend. It never occurred to her that her crush might have a girlfriend or is in love with someone else. But at least she can fall in love with the process of picking up the pieces of her heart and moving on again, even though it hurts to do so. She feels her throat bob as she shakes her head and turns to Nayeon, whose eyes are still fixated on the pair.
“Jeongyeon-ah,” Nayeon calls suddenly, sounding both playful and… something else.
The blonde swivels around, looking for the source of the voice. Her gaze lands on Nayeon and Sana, both looking at her expectantly. Then she smiles.
“Nayeon-unnie,” she says, handing the tall girl her wallet and whispering something to her. Then she walks over, displaying all swag and charm. The sight would’ve made any other girl’s heart flutter but Sana is only looking at her crush, who has resorted to counting the bills and staring resolutely at the food on display.
“Sana-yah, this is Jeongyeon,” Nayeon calls, taking Sana’s attention back to her, “I think I’ve mentioned her once or twice.”
Honestly, Sana can’t remember. Nayeon jumps from one conversation to another like she’s trying to collect all the coins in Temple Run while simultaneously trying to avoid certain death by a monkey chasing her. But Sana smiles at Jeongyeon who gives her a polite wave before turning to Nayeon and sheepishly asking, “So, are we still up for this Saturday?”
Nayeon glances at Sana who immediately gets the message. “I’m going to buy some snacks,” she announces, despite not needing to, and stands up to practically skip over to where her crush is still standing in front of the display. The girl by the counter has been watching her not so subtly, apparently waiting for her to make up her mind and order something already.
Now Sana has consumed so much lesbian media and literature since the time realized she didn’t want to go on a date with Oh Sehun back in middle school. She can already see the entire scene happening in her mind’s eye. She walks up to the crush she’s been crushing on for the past few months, points to the book she should be holding in her hand, and says, “Wow I have the exact same copy.” Then the tall girl smiles and talks about the plot and the two of them hit it off. And then they go their separate ways, still with those lovestruck smiles on their faces, and don’t have to wonder when they’ll see each other again. Because next week, same time, the tall girl will walk in and find Sana waiting expectantly for her at the same table.
At least that’s how it goes in every love story that Sana has read or watched or imagined when she’s trying to fall asleep and all she can think about is the way past flames have brushed their hands against her own, wanting to hold on but too skitterish to do so.
When Sana walks up to said crush, she realizes she doesn’t know what to say. And there’s no book in her crush’s hand. Only a flimsy wallet that Jeongyeon threw at her and a phone with a picture of a dog on its back cover.
“Hi,” she ends up saying and mentally facepalms. So much for “wow I have the exact same copy.”
Her crush looks up at her and then back down again. “Hello,” she says. Her voice is soft, mellow.
“My name is Sana,” Sana tries again, “and your friend Jeongyeon seems to be friends with Nayeon. My friend. So that should automatically make us friends in some way, right?”
What did Jeongyeon call her earlier? Tzuyu? Was it Tzuyu? That’s such a pretty name for a pretty girl. Sana expected nothing less. Of course, there aren’t any ugly names in existence. Well, maybe in America. Like Jeffrey or Karen.
Tzuyu sounds like a unique name. Like a model’s name. Sana should stop thinking and focus more on the words that are coming out of her crush’s mouth.
“I’m Tzuyu.” Aha! So Sana did hear it right.
Sana beams. “I’ve seen you at the library.”
Up close, Tzuyu looks even more beautiful than ever. Large, unblinking brown eyes, a small nose that sits symmetrically in the middle of her face, thin lips that are currently set in a line Sana isn’t sure is a frown or a smile. Maybe a bit of both. Tzuyu seems to be the only one capable of simultaneously looking like she’s bored out of her mind or somewhat interested in what other people have to say.
For the first time in her life, Sana feels at a loss for words. What do you say to someone who looks bored and interested at the same time?
“Have you?” Tzuyu says. The hand holding the wallet drops to her side and she gives Sana her full attention.
“Yeah, you’re always falling asleep.”
Tzuyu nods, accepting this fact in life. Then she turns to the counter and says, “I don’t want to order anything right now, I’m sorry.” Then she looks back at Sana with that blank stare again, making Sana realize that oh, maybe she is bored. “It was nice meeting you, Sana-ssi.” And without another word, she turns around and leaves the cafe.
Sana blinks. What just happened?
She must’ve stood there for an entire minute or so before one of the baristas takes pity and says with a hint of caution in her voice, like she’s afraid of offending Sana any more than Tzuyu already has, “Would you like to order, miss?”
Sana shakes her head and returns to her seat, where Nayeon and Jeongyeon are oblivious to what has happened and are still discussing the logistics of their date.
“Okay, fine, you win. I’ll pick you up from the dorms and — ” Jeongyeon is cut off by Sana’s sudden appearance. “Yeah. I’ll text you the details, unnie.”
Nayeon waves Jeongyeon off. “Don’t call me unnie. It makes me feel old. You’re only a few weeks younger than me.”
Jeongyeon grins. “I would’ve expected you to have some kind of unnie kink, Nayeon-ah.”
Nayeon gives the blonde a murderous glare. “You’re lucky we have witnesses.”
When Jeongyeon leaves and Sana feels like the lump in her throat has shrunk to the size of an atom, Nayeon fixes her with a knowing look. “I saw you talking to Tzuyu.”
Sana sighs and drops her forehead on the table.
Sana is also in love with rejections.
(Kidding. She hates it.)
“Maybe she just had somewhere to be,” Momo suggests helpfully when Sana brings it up over dinner.
Sana stares forlornly at her kimchi fried rice and stir-fried noodles, both of which Momo cooked using only a rice cooker and nothing else. Perks of having a rising chef as her roommate. Momo is already on her second plate. Sometimes, she grabs some meat off her rice and hands it to Boo waiting patiently under the table to be fed.
“She just left,” Sana muttered under her breath, “I looked like an idiot.”
Momo tuts and adds a dumpling into Sana’s rice bowl. “You should talk to her next time,” she says, “At the library. Maybe you’ll see her. And if she leaves again, then you’ll know she has a problem with you.”
“Geez, that makes me feel so much better.”
Momo shrugs, reaching up to wipe some sauce off her lip with her hand. “It is what it is. You’ll find another person to fawn over.”
The two of them have been friends for as long as Sana can remember. There isn’t a memory without Momo or a memory she hasn’t told Momo about. Now that she thinks about it, she realizes that Momo doesn’t like to talk about her own love life, choosing instead to focus on Sana’s. How does she do it? The two of them are such opposites in a lot of ways it’s amazing that they’ve managed to stay best friends for such a long time.
“Remember that one time you had a crush on Kang Seulgi from sixth grade?” Sana opens up, giggling at the sour expression that crosses Momo’s expression at once.
“Unfortunately,” she mumbles, “What about it?”
“I don’t know. You liked her for an entire year. How did you get over it?”
Momo sets down her chopsticks and fixes Sana with an exasperated look. “Because I didn’t have a choice,” she answers, as straightforward as ever, “and I’m not like you. I don’t read books and think that everything that has happened in that specific book is going to happen to me in real life. I don’t fall magically in love with random strangers on the streets. I don’t find beauty in every shitty thing that’s happened in my life. I just experience these things for a time and then I move on once they’re done.”
Sana scoffs. “You make me sound like I’m a dumb optimist who’s always looking at the positives in life.”
“That’s cause you are.” Momo’s smile is soft, tinged with fondness. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Sana doesn’t respond, still looking at her best friend like she holds all the answers in the universe. Then she sighs, picks up her chopsticks, and starts eating. If there’s one thing Momo is good at, it’s making her feel better with food.
Sana has a client later.
Kim Dahyun. The name seems friendly enough. She’s twenty years old, a first-year student studying Literature. The reason why she wants to try professional cuddling services is that she hasn’t gotten a proper good night’s sleep ever since she moved away from home. Now she’s hoping that Sana will be the cure to her problem. No joke. That is literally what is written as a text message on Sana’s phone when she wakes up from her afternoon nap. Their schedule is later tonight. The address to a high-end apartment complex is even listed in the details.
“Going out,” Sana tells Momo after getting out of the shower, “Don’t wait up.”
Momo doesn’t respond, staring intently at her laptop screen. Sana realizes she has her earphones plugged in. Go figure. She decides to write a message on a sticky note and places it on the fridge door. Now there’s no way Momo’s going to miss that.
When Sana leaves the dorms, the rest of the world is just going home. Primary school kids are walking around with their parents, pointing at ice cream shops, and asking for treats. Tourists from all walks of life are trying to speak with the locals in the hopes of locating their hotels. Sana overhears a few high school kids complaining about college entrance exams and hides a smile behind her scarf. It may all seem mundane to the naked eye but she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The world is beautiful when it just is.
The train ride to the other side of town takes about half an hour. Sana wonders why this Kim Dahyun lives so far away from the school. The thought should’ve incited a bit of worry in her system but she waves it off. Maybe she’s still living with her parents.
Whatever. It’s only going to be one night. Sana doesn’t have to think too much about the logistics of where this girl is living. After tonight, it’ll be up to Kim Dahyun to decide if she wants a second night or not.
The text also had the door number in which the client lives at. When Sana arrives at the apartment complex, she heads straight to the elevator and punches the button for the eighth floor. Just as the doors are about the close, something — someone — catches her eye.
“Oh fuck,” she mumbles and reaches out in a snap to hold the doors open.
It’s Tzuyu, apparently having returned from a walk with her dog on a lease. For a split second, Sana wonders if the taller girl would even remember her. But then Tzuyu meets her gaze and pauses. It’s almost as if she’s trying to place why Sana must seem so familiar.
“Hi,” Sana says, letting go of the doors once Tzuyu steps inside with her dog. The creature itself is small, barely reaching Sana’s knees, with streaks of brown around its mostly black fur. But its large doelike eyes stare up at Tzuyu like she’s the entire universe and its tiny brain simply cannot comprehend her existence.
Sana would know. She’s pretty sure she’s looked at Tzuyu the same way before — before the incident at the coffee shop where Sana was left like an idiot with her mouth hanging wide open.
“Nayeon’s friend,” Tzuyu says slowly, “Right?”
Relief rushes through Sana’s bones. “Yes,” she says with a slight hitch in her voice, “I’m glad you remembered.”
“Right.” Tzuyu looks away and doesn’t press an elevator button. So she must live on the eighth floor too. “I didn’t know you lived here.”
“I don’t.” Sana purses her lips, wonders if it’s safe to tell Tzuyu about the nature of her job. She decides not to. “I’m meeting a friend. Sort of.”
Tzuyu nods. “This is Kaya, by the way.” She gestures to the dog.
“Hi, Kaya.” Sana leans down and stretches her hand out. “Is it okay to pet you?”
“She won’t mind,” Tzuyu answers for her dog.
Sana giggles. How adorable. When she places her hand on Kaya’s snout, the dog whimpers. Her ears immediately lower down, like she’s also lowering her defenses. Sana glances up at Tzuyu who is watching the pair quietly, still with that neutral expression. But the more Sana looks, the more the corners of Tzuyu’s lips twitch. Is that a smile? Sana hopes so.
The doors slide open with a ding and Sana rises to her feet. She follows Tzuyu out of the elevator, the apartment number still fresh on her mind. Tzuyu doesn’t make any small talk as they walk in the same direction. Huh. Maybe this Kim Dahyun lives next to Tzuyu somehow.
“This is me,” Tzuyu says at the same time Sana stops in front of the apartment where Kim Dahyun lives.
Sana gives Tzuyu a confused look. Then she pulls out her phone and checks the apartment number again. It’s the right one. Apartment No. 86. There’s even a small message attached: just knock. Don’t be shy.
Maybe there’s a slight possibility Tzuyu has lied about her name and is in fact the Kim Dahyun Sana is supposed to be meeting right now. But she doesn’t even seem like she’s expecting anybody to show up tonight, much less a professional cuddler she probably heard about from the internet. Tzuyu takes out her key from her pocket and inserts it in, Kaya dutifully following behind. Sana knows she should say something but for some reason, like it always does when Tzuyu seems to be around, her brain fails to function.
“Uhm,” Sana begins, raising a hand and stopping Tzuyu from entering her apartment, “Is there by any chance you know Kim Dahyun?”
Tzuyu pauses, tilting her head to the side like a confused puppy. “She’s my best friend,” she answers.
“Oh.” Sana frowns. “You should call her.”
Tzuyu mirrors her frown. “Is there something wrong?”
“No, no, not really. It’s just… I’m supposed to be helping her with something and I think she gave me your address instead.”
The confused expression on Tzuyu’s face vanishes quickly. She straightens up, pulls her phone from her pocket, and dials her best friend’s number. When the call connects, she turns her body away so that Sana won’t be able to hear the conversation. Besides, Tzuyu talks so softly and so quietly that Sana probably wouldn’t have heard her anyway.
It takes a few minutes but Tzuyu finally returns with an unreadable look on her face.
“I’m sorry,” she says regretfully, bowing deeply, “but I think Dahyun pranked us both. She called your services because she thinks I need it.”
Sana’s frown deepens. “Does that mean you’re the one who hasn’t been sleeping well ever since you left home?”
Tzuyu nods slowly. It dawns on Sana that this is probably the reason why this girl always falls asleep at the library. Her heart twinges with sympathy. The thought of Tzuyu struggling to deal with university life on insufficient amount of sleep was enough to make her want to step forward and comfort her in some way. But she doesn’t. They’ve only just met, after all.
“I’m sorry for wasting your time,” Tzuyu goes on, waving her phone, “She put it under her name because she had to pay for the fee and everything. I can pay you back for all the trouble you went through just getting here though. How much is the bus fare?”
Sana shakes her head. “No, it’s alright.” She fidgets, shifting her weight from one foot to another. “It helps, you know.”
Tzuyu’s jaw is tense. Next to her, Kaya starts fidgeting as well, apparently eager to head inside the apartment. In an effort to calm her down, the taller girl kneels and pats her pet quietly. “What helps?” she asks. For the first time since they’ve met, she can’t seem to hold Sana’s gaze. Is she embarrassed? Sana’s not so sure. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
“Cuddling.” Sana purses her lips. “According to research, when you cuddle with someone, your brain releases a hormone called oxytocin. This helps you deal with stress, relaxes your body, and helps you fall asleep faster at night.” She tries to catch Tzuyu’s gaze but fails. “It might be something you want to explore soon.”
Don’t get Sana wrong. She is not offering professional cuddling services to her crush because she wants to know what it’s like for them to fall asleep in the same bed or for her to live some kind of fantasy that might never play out anytime soon. What she wants is for Tzuyu to get enough hours of rest that she won’t end up falling asleep in the most random of places. At the end of the day, this is purely for Tzuyu’s sake and none for her own.
(Maybe Sana wants a little peek of her crush’s apartment. Only a little though.)
But Tzuyu just shakes her head. “It’s fine, Sana-ssi. Thank you for the concern.”
Tzuyu always speaks so formally. Sana can’t help but find it so adorable. A smile plays on her lips and she reaches into her bag to pull out a calling card. When she extends it to Tzuyu, the taller girl hesitates. But after a while, she takes it.
“If you change your mind.” Sana nods at the card. “You know how to contact me.”
Tzuyu is watching her carefully. After a while, she sighs and rises to her feet. With one hand on the door leading to her apartment, she gives Sana another stiff nod. “Are you sure you don’t want me to call you a cab?”
Sana plays around with the strap of her bag, unsure if she wants to leave so soon. A part of her is hoping that Tzuyu might change her mind and try the cuddling, even for only a couple of minutes. A larger, more rational part of her knows that Tzuyu thinks of her only as Nayeon’s friend and nothing else. The thought stings. She decides to roll with the punches.
“Yeah, I’ll be okay.” Sana looks around. “You live so far away but that makes the train ride interesting.”
Tzuyu scoffs lightly. “The train rides are the worst part.”
“I would have to kindly disagree.” Kaya is getting restless now, which Sana takes as her cue to leave. She takes a bow. “I’ll see you around, Tzuyu-ssi.”
“See you, Sana-ssi.” And with those words, Tzuyu heads into her apartment with her dog in tow. Sana lingers in front of the door for a couple of seconds, the disappointment in her stomach growing deeper as time passes on. But she shakes her head, brushing the second rejection from Tzuyu off her system, and makes her way to the elevator again.
Whoever this Kim Dahyun is, Sana doesn’t know whether to thank her or strangle her.
She ends up meeting Kim Dahyun a few days later, courtesy of Myoui Mina. It’s Friday, which means Saa is on her way to Jihyo’s dorm, where the two of them usually spend their time eating sweet snacks and gossiping about their lives. On the way there, she passes by Mina, the aforementioned roommate that Sana really hasn't had the chance to bond with over the course of the semester.
“Hey,” Sana greets, “Is Jihyo in her room?”
Mina smiles, soft and easy. “Yeah, she’s waiting for you already.”
“Awesome, thanks.” And just as Sana is about to continue walking, Mina spots somebody over her shoulder and calls, “Oh, Dahyun-ah, I thought we were meeting downstairs.”
Dahyun-ah. Sana stops walking and swivels around so fast she’s surprised she didn’t get whiplash. Behind her, she comes face to face with a blonde girl who seems to be a year younger than she is. Both the girl and Mina turn to her, surprised at the quick reaction speed that Sana displayed upon hearing her name.
“Are you Kim Dahyun?” Sana asks.
The blonde raises her eyebrows. “That would be me.”
Mina comes to stand next to Dahyun, reaching down to hold her hand. Oh, Sana thinks to herself very briefly, that’s nice. The sight makes her want to squeal with joy. Young love is always so lovely to witness.
“What’s up?” Dahyun questions.
“I met your friend the other day,” Sana tells her, “Tzuyu?”
At once, Dahyun’s face lights up. “Oh, you’re the cuddler!”
Mina frowns. “The cuddler?”
“Yeah, Chaengie mentioned it to me before,” Dahyun goes on, “She said that you could hire people to cuddle with you, especially if you’re having difficulty relaxing or falling asleep. I figured Tzuyu could use one and hooked her up the other night.”
The expression on Mina’s face tightens. “And you think Tzuyu would be okay with that?”
“Considering I paid for it, I couldn’t see why not.” Dahyun’s smile disappears. “It was also partly Chaeyoung’s fault.”
Sana and Mina share a look that says, what are we going to do with her?
“Babe,” Mina begins, "Think about it. How would you feel if a random stranger showed up to your apartment out of nowhere and said that she was there to cuddle with you? It's weird, right? You'd feel… weird."
The words sting a bit. Sana wouldn't exactly call herself a stranger in Tzuyu's eyes. But then again, before Nayeon and Jeongyeon, Sana technically was a stranger. The thought is depressing, making her sulk.
Dahyun does the same thing. "I was only trying to help."
"Tzuyu is still adjusting," Mina goes on, partly to Dahyun and partly to Sana, "She'll get used to it. She's strong, you know this."
Dahyun sighs. "Alright." She looks at Sana, wearing a half-smile. "Can I get my money back since you technically didn't get to do your job?"
Sana ducks her head. "I'm afraid refunds are out of my hands."
"Go figure." Dahyun rubs her neck. "Anyway, we should get going. Chaeyoung’s waiting for us. It was nice to meet you—?"
Sana bows her head. "Sana."
Dahyun smiles. "Sana-ssi." Then she lets Mina drag her away from the conversation, both of them saying their casual goodbyes. Sana stands there for a few minutes, going over what just happened, before her phone starts ringing, signaling that Jihyo is wondering where she is.
One night, while Sana is in the middle of trying to wrestle her bra from Boo’s jaw, she gets a text message from an unknown number.
[Unknown] (7:09 PM):
I cant sleep
Sana frowns and lets go of her bra strap. Boo barks around the fabric in his mouth before he runs off to Momo’s room. God knows how they managed to not get kicked out of the dorms, considering how loud that dog is. Pushing the thought out of her mind, Sana gets up from the floor and types in her reply.
[Sana - Cuddler] (7:11 PM)
Maybe bc its too early to fall asleep?
[Unknown] (7:15 PM)
I havent been able to sleep properly since I moved here
[Unknown] (7:16 PM)
Is your offer still up?
It takes a while for Sana’s brain to kickstart into gear.
[Sana - Cuddler] (7:17 PM)
Is this Tzuyu?
[Unknown] (7:16 PM)
[Sana - Cuddler] (7:17 PM)
When Sana arrives, Tzuyu looks embarrassed.
“I wasn’t going to text you,” Tzuyu mutters under her breath. Her place is as luxurious and neat as Sana expected. A sizable single bedroom apartment with a small living room, kitchen, and dining area is what greets the older girl when she walks through the door. To Sana’s pleasant surprise, she finds not one but two dogs sitting on the couch, apparently waiting for her arrival as well.
“Kaya and Butter,” Tzuyu explains, coming from behind. Compared to all the other times they’ve met, she’s practically exuding a nervous, bubbly aura. Sana wants to reach out and hold her arm in an effort to tell her that it’s okay, she doesn’t have to be so nervous. But before she can do that, Tzuyu heads to the kitchen, asking if she wants some tea or coffee.
“I don’t drink coffee though,” Tzuyu goes on, coming back with a tray. On top of it are two teacups, one filled with hot water and the other already infused with herbal tea. Lying next to the cups are two different packets — one for more tea and one for coffee. Apparently, the decision is up to Sana.
Sana, who realizes that she’s barely said a single word since she showed up.
“You don’t have to be so nervous,” Sana tells her gently, “I’m not here to judge you for anything.”
Tzuyu guides her to the couch. Her two dogs obediently scooch to the side. “That’s the thing,” Tzuyu says, giving her a long look as she pours her some tea, courtesy of Sana’s choice, “I know you’re not going to judge me. I actually think you’re the last person who would.”
The comment makes Sana flush. Can it be considered a compliment? For Tzuyu, it just seems like the truth, laid open like a war map on a general’s table, all the troops and armies set in their designated places. Nothing else needs to be changed.
“It’s just,” Tzuyu begins and Sana nods at her to continue, realizing that this is the most that Tzuyu has spoken ever since they’ve met, “I’m not used to being so far away from home and it’s been affecting me pretty badly. I’m used to having my parents in the other room. And sometimes, I stay up all night doing schoolwork that I don’t even notice just how much time has passed. Then I find it hard to fall asleep or even get some shut-eye while the sun is up.”
One of the upsides to this job is being able to understand where her clients are coming from. After all, it would be strange to immediately get into bed with a random girl, even if you’re expecting it. What Sana wants is to create an atmosphere of total calm and comfort. She wants Tzuyu to trust her. She wants to be worthy of that trust in the first place. For some clients, it’s easy to gain that trust. Sana doesn’t look like the type of person who could hurt a fly, even though she has — multiple times already.
But judging by Tzuyu’s still embarrassed expression, it’s clear that she doesn’t fully trust Sana yet, despite the assurance that she felt like she wasn’t going to be judged.
Sana takes a long sip of her tea. “Where are you from?”
Tzuyu mentions a small town in Taiwan. “But we moved here in high school,” she answers.
“You know,” Sana starts, setting her cup down, “I get what you mean about not being able to sleep when you’re so far away from home.” She thinks of Osaka, of her mother’s soothing voice lulling her to dreamland, of her father’s steady hand running down her hair, of the knowledge that when she woke up, her grandmother would be there to make her breakfast. “It feels lonely,” she adds.
Tzuyu fixes her gaze on her. “You know how it feels?”
Sana smiles, a tinge of bitterness in her voice when she says, “I’ve been far from home for a very long time too.”
Butter starts to whine, wanting Tzuyu’s attention. The taller girl reaches out and lays a gentle hand on her dog’s back. “I didn’t know that you weren’t from around here too. You have really good pronunciation.”
Sana smiles. “I’ve been told.”
The two of them converse long into the night. Even though Tzuyu doesn’t talk much, she’s a great listener, which is perfect for Sana, who loves to ramble on and on about things that come to mind, like the college essay she had to write about leaving home at such a young age and only being able to come back during the summer. Then she talks about her friends — how Momo likes to wake up early in the mornings to dance but hates getting up for her exams or how Nayeon once chopped off her bangs on a dare and actually looked good in it or how Jihyo is one of the few people who actively returns her affections with equal, if not double, the amount of love.
In return, Tzuyu tells her about her friends too. “Dahyun means well,” she says, smiling fondly, “I’ve known her since we moved here.” It is the first real smile that Sana has seen, complete with dimples that ooze with Tzuyu's innocence and charm.
“She seems nice,” Sana comments, looking away with a faint blush on her cheeks.
“She is,” Tzuyu agrees easily, “I also have another friend. Her name is Chaeyoung. She’s studying art.” There’s a hint of pride in Tzuyu’s voice, one that doesn’t go unnoticed by Sana.
“You seem proud of her,” Sana comments again.
“Yes, of course.” Tzuyu's smile widens. "She's my best friend."
When Sana looks at her watch, she sees that it's almost eleven o'clock. Three hours have passed already. As much as Sana wants to dive a bit deeper into Tzuyu's relationships with her friends and every little detail about her life, she remembers the exact reason she was brought here in the first place.
Tzuyu remembers too and rises to her feet. "So how does this work?" she asks.
Sana's answer is quick and easy, "We get on the bed and cuddle. Then you fall asleep. Hopefully. Within the next half hour or so."
The thought seems daunting to Tzuyu. "And if I can't fall asleep?"
Sana grins. "Then it's going to be an awkward night."
It doesn't turn out to be an awkward night.
After feeding her dogs and getting ready for bed, Tzuyu heads to the bedroom and finds Sana waiting patiently for her already. "This is my first time," the taller girl says blankly, drawing out a laugh from Sana.
"Hiring a professional cuddler or sleeping with a stranger?"
Tzuyu huffs. "Both."
Sana runs a hand over the bed. "Don't worry," she says with another light laugh, "I won't bite."
Tzuyu is wearing blue pajamas with dog faces printed all over them — a fact that Sana finds absolutely adorable. Her hair cascades down her shoulders in elegant waves and Sana wonders how it would feel to reach out and course her fingers through its volume. And even though Tzuyu's face is bare of make-up, Sana still thinks she's one of the prettiest people she's ever laid eyes on.
When Tzuyu shuts off the lights, leaving the bedside lamp on, Sana stretches her arms out. "Come on," she coaxes, "It's time for you to sleep."
When Tzuyu enters her embrace, Sana is careful. The taller girl smells of vanilla shampoo, the gentle scent clinging to her hair, and her skin is soft and cool to the touch. At first, it's awkward — painfully so. Tzuyu's all stiff and tense like she's expecting to be pushed off. Her head is cradled on Sana's chest and her arms are lying lifelessly by Sana's sides. A few seconds pass. Sana doesn't realize how heavily her heart is pounding inside her chest until Tzuyu asks, "are you nervous too?"
Sana lets out a sigh and relaxes. "Maybe," she answers. Without thinking much about it, she reaches out and runs her fingers through Tzuyu's hair. From where she’s sitting, she can’t see the other girl’s expression. Unknownst to her, Tzuyu’s eyes have already drifted shut.
“You know, you don’t talk much,” Sana says.
Tzuyu lets out a soft breath. “I’ve been told.” She doesn’t move and Sana isn’t sure if it’s because she’s comfortable or not. “But,” Tzuyu suddenly adds, “you make it look so easy.”
“I just say what’s on my mind.” Sana is looking at the side of Tzuyu’s face, observing the shadows dancing on her cheeks. “I think a lot of people prefer to listen.”
“Yes.” Tzuyu shifts. Her ear is pressed against Sana’s chest. It makes Sana wonder what the other girl thinks of her heart beating unsteadily. Does she think of it as a comfort? Is she wondering what’s making Sana so nervous? Maybe if she listens closer, she’ll hear the answer: it’s you, it’s you, it’s you.
“The first time we met,” Tzuyu suddenly begins, her voice low and soft, “I thought you looked pretty.”
Sana’s heartbeat quickens. The hand on Tzuyu’s hair stills. “Oh?”
Tzuyu nods. “You looked like a model.”
“Thanks.” Sana resists the urge to preen. She thought I looked pretty! “You left so quickly though. I wondered if I had offended you.”
Tzuyu doesn’t speak for an entire minute. Sana’s almost certain that she’s already fallen asleep. Then the other girl shifts but this time, she pulls back to meet Sana’s gaze. There’s only a small space between them, one that seems nonexistent in the low illumination the bedside lamp provides. But Tzuyu’s eyes seem to glow despite it all. Her lips are parted and Sana suddenly realizes that she can’t breathe.
“I was embarrassed,” Tzuyu confesses, “That’s why I left.”
Sana lets out a shaky breath. “Embarrassed about what?”
“That you’ve seen me at the library.” Tzuyu leans back on her legs, sitting up fully. “I was embarrassed that you saw me dozing off. I hope I wasn’t drooling or anything.”
The confession is so out of the blue that Sana doesn’t know what to say at first. She bursts out laughing instead, the nervous butterflies from seconds ago shifting into a tummyache that’s full of relief. Because Sana has spent so long worrying that Tzuyu didn’t like her from the get-go that to finally have that thought dispelled from her mind is almost downright overwhelming. She reaches out and places a warm hand on Tzuyu’s arm, which the younger girl doesn’t shake off, much to Sana’s delight.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed around me,” Sana tells her fondly, “In fact, I thought you looked so adorable.”
Tzuyu groans. “Please, I was trying to study.”
“I know.” Sana tries and fails to stifle her giggles. “But every single time we were at the library, it took you five seconds flat to fall asleep.”
Tzuyu looks away. Despite the low light, Sana can clearly see the faint flush on her cheeks. “That’s why I left,” she mumbles, “I was embarrassed.”
Sana’s giggling doesn’t subside for a while but she tugs Tzuyu by the arm, laying her gently on the empty space next to her. A soft noise of protest leaves the other girls’ mouth but Sana shushes it by wrapping an arm around Tzuyu’s waist and using the other arm as a cushion for the taller girl’s head.
Tzuyu’s silence is unnerving at first but Sana breaks it by saying, “I think it’s time we go to bed so that you won’t have to fall asleep at the library again.”
Hearing no complaints, Sana lets Tzuyu fully relax into the embrace. She finds that clients prefer being the small spoon instead of the big one. In this new position, she can also focus on the vanilla scent of Tzuyu’s hair — stronger this time. It’s enough to make her woozy. But she can’t fall asleep first. That would just be sleeping on the job. So she passes the time by tracing patterns on Tzuyu’s stomach. At first, it’s simply Tzuyu’s name in Hangul, then her own name, and then some shapes that come to mind. After a while, she ends up writing full sentences in Japanese, content in knowing that Tzuyu will never be able to understand what she’s trying to say with her hand.
You’re so cute.
I’m starting to like you.
I want to get to know you more.
I’m thankful for this moment here.
Please fall asleep soon.
It takes a while but soon, Sana feels Tzuyu’s breathing even out. Her shoulders slump forward, no longer tense, and then it’s just silence. On the clock facing the bed, Sana spots the time: 12:01 AM. She would’ve preferred that Tzuyu had fallen asleep earlier but this will have to do.
Sana falls asleep next.
The next time she opens her eyes, the darkness in the room has thickened but she can still see the time on the clock thanks to the bedside lamp. It’s almost four in the morning. Her arm is starting to sore. When she fixes her gaze on the figure next to her, she realizes the reason why.
In the middle of the night, Tzuyu has shifted around to face her. Sana wishes the lights were switched on. Then she would’ve been able to see the complete serenity written all over the younger girl’s features. And even though Sana’s arm is completely squished under Tzuyu’s head and the other one is bent at an awkward angle between their bodies, she wouldn’t give this up even for the slightest bit of comfort. Because she can feel Tzuyu’s warmth so close to her and it’s not every day the person that you’ve been crushing on for the past few months is lying next to you, completely and utterly vulnerable but beautiful nevertheless.
The kind of beauty Sana fell in love with since the moment she laid eyes on Tzuyu.
She falls asleep again. But this time — with a smile on her face.
Predictably, Tzuyu wakes up first.
“You know,” Tzuyu says when she sees Sana’s eyes fluttering open. The fact that she hasn’t left the bed should account for something but Sana is too busy getting lost in Tzuyu’s gaze that she doesn’t pay it any mind.
“What?” Sana mumbles, subconsciously inching closer.
A smile crosses Tzuyu’s expression. A real one — the dimples are all there. “I think you’re cute too,” she says matter-of-factly.
It’s still early in the morning so Sana’s mind hasn’t turned on all the way through yet. Once the words sink in, however, her eyes widen comically. It makes Tzuyu laugh. It occurs to Sana that this is the first time she’s heard the younger girl laugh out loud. The sound, like every part of Tzuyu, is beautiful.
“You can understand kanji?”
Tzuyu shrugs. “Mina-unnie teaches me sometimes.” She sits up, running a hand to smoothen down her hair. “I slept well last night. Thank you.”
Sana is absolutely floored. She sits up as well, wondering if there’s something else on Tzuyu’s mind. Because there’s no way you can just call someone cute unless you like them a bit, right?
“Did you understand anything else I wrote?” she asks carefully, following Tzuyu with her eyes.
Tzuyu meets her gaze as she’s grabbing a towel off a chair. “No,” she admits.
Sana feels both relieved and disappointed.
“But,” Tzuyu goes on, coming to a standstill in front of the bed where Sana is still seated, “maybe you can teach me tonight.” The words are spoken slowly and carefully as if Tzuyu is gauging Sana’s reaction. But the message has been heard and understood. It’s an invitation to come again.
The invitation is subtle — like Tzuyu. Sana smiles — all wide and happy — because she’s Sana.
It’s the start of something beautiful.